By Holden Slattery
When New York state school psychologists were tested on their ability to detect child maltreatment and their likelihood to report it to child protection authorities, many displayed knowledge deficits and a reluctance to report.
This led Farleigh Dickinson University researchers to propose that schools require their psychologists to take refresher courses on maltreatment identification and reporting.
The 274 school psychologists participating in the study, which was published in November’s issue of Psychology in the Schools, scored a 72 percent on a written test of their overall knowledge of child maltreatment reporting. These participants work at elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools throughout New York state.
“It was nowhere near what I’d like to see people get,” said Dr. Victoria Lusk, the school psychologist in New York who led the study. “I’d like to see them get in the A range.”
When asked to analyze a scenario of sexual abuse, only 65 percent of the psychologists surveyed believed it might be maltreatment, and only 44 percent of them said they would report the incident to child protective services (CPS). The fictional scenario involved a boy who displays sexual knowledge and behavior considered excessive for his age and who appears nervous when asked if he has been sexually abused.
“There’s a significant gap between knowledge and reporting,” Lusk said. “People said they suspected maltreatment and didn’t report it. That’s a problem.”
Lusk conducted the study as her dissertation along with researchers from Farleigh Dickinson University. She sought to determine how knowledgeable school psychologists are about the mandate to report child maltreatment, how well they recognize reportable maltreatment and how likely they are to make reports.
“I think educators, in particular school psychologists, can play a big role in identifying child maltreatment, and it’s important to know, what do they know?” Lusk said.
In addition to the scenario of sexual abuse, respondents were given a scenario in which a girl says she had no food at home, is improperly clothed and is often absent or tardy due to obligations to care for her siblings. The school psychologists were more accurate in identifying this as neglect—95 percent believed the scenario might be maltreatment and 87 percent would report it. Both scenarios were taken from the Crenshaw Abuse Reporting Survey, a tool that was created for a 1995 study on educators reporting child maltreatment.
The survey respondents in Lusk’s study represent about 5 percent of practicing school psychologists in New York state. Using estimates based on the average number of students school psychologists serve in New York, the respondents who would not report either of the maltreatment scenarios serve about 17,000 students and the respondents who would only report one of these scenarios serve another 80,000 students, according to the study.
Less than 50 percent of school psychologists correctly identified that a misdemeanor is a possible consequence of failing to report maltreatment. About 17 percent of psychologists surveyed erroneously believed that a person who reports child maltreatment must have evidence to substantiate the report. To report possible child abuse to CPS, a person only needs reason to believe that abuse has occurred—not evidence, proof or documentation.
The respondents who work with students of low socioeconomic status reported child maltreatment to CPS about three times per year, while respondents working in middle-to-high economic status schools reported it half as often, according to the study.
In 10 years working as a school psychologist in Ardsley Union Free School District, which she described as fairly affluent, Lusk said she has reported child maltreatment to CPS about two times per year. Despite observing that more reports were made in poorer districts, Lusk believes there may also be a higher rate of unreported maltreatment cases in those districts.
“In places with fewer resources, I think there’s an even greater chance that there’s underreporting,” Lusk said.
Speaking from her own experience, Lusk noted that there are sometimes negative repercussions of making reports, such as punishment to children at home, or simply the trauma that children experience when they become part of a child maltreatment investigation. However, she has found that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Parents might try alternative methods of punishment as a result of an investigation, and even if parental behavior does not change, children may feel validated when an educator makes a report on their behalf, Lusk explained.
“I’ve found that there’s usually improvement of some kind,” Lusk said. “A CPS call doesn’t magically change anything, but it can change something dynamically about the situation.
Holden Slattery is a student at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. He wrote this story as a part of the Media for Policy Change class.